On Friday, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC pro team staff went about their business in preparation for the 2024 season, conducting their first open tryout session at Montour Junction on Friday.
At the same time, one player who was instrumental in the team’s success in the past two seasons, Arturo Ordóñez, who was voted as USL Championship’s Defender of the Year in 2023, after sharing last Friday that he would not be returning to Pittsburgh, announced his move to one of the Riverhounds’ primary rival clubs, Louisville City FC.
Very excited to announce that I am joining @loucityfc. Thanks to the club and staff for the opportunity and belief to make this happen.
I can’t wait to meet all the fans in Lynn Family Stadium and show them the best version of me.
Vamos!! 💜💜 pic.twitter.com/G1vPezXR4h
— Arturo Osuna Ordóñez (@OrdonezOsuna) December 8, 2023
For the most devoted followers of the Riverhounds, while this was not an unprecedented move, it did serve as a cold reminder that sometimes the club’s approach to building its roster for each season, which many second division professional soccer clubs in the U.S. have to operate, means that some of the most prominent players will not re-sign, and move on to other clubs.
This leads to the question: coming off a season with unprecedented successes both on the field, and record attendance numbers, can the Riverhounds re-sign some of the remaining prominent players who have expired contracts?
Since the arrival of Bob Lilley in 2018 as the club’s head coach who has final say on all personnel decisions, the Riverhounds haven’t really wavered in how they go about their business.
In building out a roster that would take shape in his vision for each season, the Lilley has prioritized re-signing players who are committed and fit into his system of play.
Immediately following the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s disappointing postseason exit, a 1-0 loss as the top seed, to 8th seeded Detroit City FC, Lilley made a point to share that he was hopeful that he would be able to bring back many of the current players on the club’s roster from what was by-and-large one of — if not the — most successful seasons in the history of the franchise.
“It’s a great group. Lot of guys will be back. I know when we had our huddle after game. (I) said to guys, keep your head up. It was a great season. We made a great run in the Open Cup. We won the regular season (Players Shield). We did as much as we could expect from them,” Lilley said.
However, time after time, what typically happens after Riverhounds’ seasons since 2018 end, is the following:
Immediately or shortly after the season ends, Lilley and his coaching staff, will have exit interviews/meetings with each player, and at that point, they’ll debrief about the season and discuss whether they would like to have the player come back the following season, or not. For players under contract for the following season and those who the team holds contract options for the following year, the team will make those decisions and their intent known shortly after the season ends, and no later than the league’s imposed December 1 deadline. Already, the Riverhounds announced in late November that they’ve exercised contract options for seven players, bringing the total roster to 11 players signed for the 2024 season. This is one of — if not the largest — group of returning players to the team’s roster in the history of the franchise.
As for the players who are out of contract, the coaching staff will let them know if they would like to bring them back, or not. Those players have an opportunity to pursue their options.
More often than not, players who have success in Pittsburgh after playing out their contract, typically two years as the team often holds the second year contract option, will go elsewhere to find more lucrative deals or finding opportunities to play at a higher level or that align with their personal lives (typically moving close to home regions for U.S. based players or going back to their home county if they’re foreign-based).
There have been some significant exceptions to this. The Hounds have consistently re-signed Kenardo Forbes each time his contract has expired since he joined the club in 2018, and now, Dani Rovira has fallen into that category, as he will be entering his sixth season in Pittsburgh in 2024.
Another player they re-signed after his first contract expired was after the 2021 season, when Lilley bought stock in forward Albert Dikwa, who was coming off an injury riddled campaign at that time, but blossomed in the following two seasons, becoming the Hounds’ (and the league’s) leading scorer and now the reigning USL Championship MVP
In Ordóñez’s case, we can’t know for sure without the contract details, but it’s likely he found a more lucrative and enticing offer with a club always in the hunt for a Championship. Keep in mind, Ordóñez opted in 2022, after being drafted with Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, not to sign with that club’s MLS Next Pro club, but instead negotiated to come to Pittsburgh to play for the Riverhounds, where he wanted to be part of a team trying to win a championship and find a place where he could blossom as a player.
Now, seeing Ordóñez’s departure following his first two outstanding pro seasons in Pittsburgh, the big question in the coming weeks will be, which additional players from last year’s roster, who had expiring contracts, will the Hounds be able to re-sign?
Among those players include Dikwa, Jahmali Waite, the Jamaican international who has been the club’s primary starting goalkeeper in 2022 and 2023, Nate Dossantos, Luke Biasi and Marc Ybarra, who played in every match in 2023.
It’s very likely that some of these players will be lured by contract offers from other teams or opportunities to further their careers elsewhere. It’s also likely that Lilley and his staff may not opt to re-sign them because they can replace them with a new wave of signees for the next season.
This offseason feels an awful like where they were following the 2019 campaign, when the Riverhounds finished first in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. Immediately after that season, numerous key players with expired contracts, including Joe Greenspan, the USL Championship’s Defender of the Year and the team’s leading scorer, Neco Brett, moved on to sign with other clubs. In Greenspan’s case, he signed with San Diego Loyal, Brett signed with Birmingham.
Still, without question, Lilley has been able to successfully rebuild the Hounds’ roster each season, despite numerous departures of some of his most productive players (see full list below of most prominent departures), with younger prospects and some keen veteran signings.
Having a strong core of 11 players already returning, even in worst case scenario with all players out of contract not returning, Lilley would be comfortable in moving forward with the current group, while seeking out new players to build around for the 2024 campaign.
However, with the club having an unprecedented season in 2023, with record crowds coming to Highmark Stadium, and success on the field, this leads to an interesting point in the club’s direction. Can they retain the League’s MVP (Dikwa) and will Lilley break the mold, and re-sign his starting keeper from the past two seasons?
There’s no doubt that Dikwa is drawing interest from clubs around the USL Championship, if not beyond. But Dikwa has constantly praised Lilley as being one of the primary reasons he had the success he had as a much improved and dynamic goal scorer, and Lilley did bring Dikwa back in 2022 because he saw the Cameroonian native’s upside. Would Dikwa want to test the waters elsewhere, or stay in Pittsburgh where he’s become a great fit in Lilley’s system, not just for his goal scoring talents, but for his two-way play, his leadership and chemistry with many of the players who are already returning.
One additional side note, the last time the Riverhounds featured a reigning league MVP, Jose Angulo, in 2013, they were able to exercise his contract option, re-signing the Columbian-American scoring whiz to a second season, where he underachieved a bit in 2014. Angulo didn’t come back in 2015, as the club went in a different direction with a new coach.
Waite, who has essentially become the primary back-up keeper for the Jamaican National Team, behind Philadelphia Union’s 33-year old Andre Blake, is also a player who will be generating interest from other clubs. The Hounds under Lilley have a pretty clear-cut history of not re-signing keepers, and going with younger players at that position when contract expire. Here’s the list of starting/primary keepers from each year for the club since Lilley took over: Dan Lynd (2018, did not pick up contract option); Kyle Morton (2019, out of contract); Danny Vitiello (2020-21, did not re-sign when out of contract); Jahmali Waite (2022-23, to be determined).
If the Hounds follow past recent history, Dikwa and Waite will sign elsewhere, and Lilley will scour the market for adequate replacements. When Brett left in 2019, the Hounds still had Steevan Dos Santos, but also signed a proven scorer, Ropapa Mensah and brought in a 21 year-old Dikwa. They’ve also signed some solid free agents following that year, including the Alex Dixon and Russell Ciccerone combo. Before signing with the Riverhounds, Vitiello and Waite were unproven players who didn’t have a chance to become a primary starter elsewhere. Lilley along with goalkeeper coach Jon Busch, are probably already in the process of looking for the next Vitiello and Waite.
Dossantos, Biasi and Ybarra are each interesting cases, where they could easily fall into the mold where they might benefit from staying with the Riverhounds and continue to be key contributors as they potentially could grow into even bigger roles with the club, if that’s the coaching staff’s assessment. Dossantos and Ybarra were regular starters and Biasi was an integral part of the 2023 rotation of wingers/outside backs.
So now we wait — and will find out if the Hounds’ will look to further maintain continuity by re-signing some of these prominent players, or will it be business as usual again.
RIVERHOUNDS MOST PROMINENT PLAYERS WHO SIGNED / OPTED TO GO ELSEWHERE AFTER CONTRACTS EXPIRED (2019-present)
Since 2018, here’s a list of the prominent players who departed Pittsburgh after being out of contract, and where they signed.
Neco Brett – The former Robert Morris University standout became the Hounds’ leading goal scorer in 2018 and 2019, but was signed by Birmingham after two seasons in Pittsburgh. Brett continued on with Birmingham, New Mexico and went back to Birmingham since, where he’s been productive, but has not matched his goal scoring output in two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Joe Greenspan – USL Championship’s Defensive Player of the Year, signed with San Diego. After short stint in San Diego, Greenspan, who remains in active duty with the U.S. Navy, announced his retirement from pro soccer in 2021.
Tobi Adewole – after two strong seasons in Pittsburgh to begin his pro career, Tobi Adewole signed with Saint Louis FC. Adewole also played with Phoenix Rising and Indy Eleven in 2021 and 2022, before moving to Germany, where he’s played in the fourth tier, with RW Koblenz and Greifswalder SC.
Mo Dabo – a key defensive midfielder in 2018 and 2019, Dabo opted to sign with Reno FC. After nine appearances with Reno in 2020, Dabo has since played in USL League One with Central Valley Fuego FC, where he’s made 40 appearances in 2022-23.
Thomas Vancaeyezeele – An All-USL selection in 2019 and 2020, opted to sign with San Diego
Robbie Mertz – After his team contract option year played out, the Pittsburgh native opted to seek a pathway to Major League Soccer by signing with Atlanta United FC 2, where he played for a season and a half, before returning to Pittsburgh midway through 2022 season.
Danny Vitiello – After Vitiello ascended into the starting goalkeeper role in 2020 when he won the USL Golden Glove award, and had another outstanding season in 2021, the Hounds opted not to re-sign the keeper once he was out of contract. Vitiello would sign with Sacramento, who he helped lead to US Open Cup Final in 2022.
Jordan Dover – Dover played four seasons in Pittsburgh, making 85 appearances at outside back, but the Hounds opted not to bring him back for 2022. Dover has not returned to the USL Championship since.
Danny Griffin – Like Mertz did two years before, Griffin opted to look at a pathway to MLS, by signing with Nashville’s MLS Next Pro club, Huntsville (AL), where he featured for two months, before returning to Pittsburgh in May 2023.
Alex Dixon – following two seasons in Pittsburgh, as a key playmaker and catalyst to the Hounds’ attack, Dixon was not re-signed, finding a deal with Monterey Bay FC, where he had a strong start to the 2023 season.
Russell Cicerone – Cicerone had two breakout campaigns in Pittsburgh, in 2021 and 2022, where he was the team’s leading scorer. With his contract expired, Cicerone headed West, signing with Sacramento, where he had a terrific season, as a USL Championship MVP candidate.
Shane Wiedt – the former Pitt standout, who had two solid seasons in Pittsburgh after two years with Loudoun United FC, also moved on to Sacramento, to join former Hounds’ teammates Vitiello and Cicerone in the 2023 season.
Arturo Ordóñez – Another former Pitt player who made the most of his experience with the Riverhounds, earning USL Championship’s Defensive Player of the Year honors, moved on to sign with Louisville City FC.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 2024 Projected Roster by Position
- Forward: Edward Kizza
- Midfield: Dani Rovira, Langston Blackstock, Junior Etou, DZ Harmon, Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin, Robbie Mertz
- Defenders: Mike DeShields, Pat Hogan, Illal Osumanu
- Goalkeepers: none
Riverhounds 2023 Rostered Players who’s contract expired and are now free agents
- Albert Dikwa (Forward — Reigning USL Championship MVP)
- Arturo Ordonez (Defender – Reigning USL Championship Defender of the Year) – UPDATE – Signed with Louisville City FC
- Jahmali Waite (Goalkeeper)
- Nate Dossantos (Defender)
- Luke Biasi (Defender/Midfielder)
- Marc Ybarra (Midfielder)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 2023 Rostered Players who did not have contract options picked up
- Burke Fahling (Midfielder)
- JC Obregon (Forward)
- Trevor Zwetsloot (Midfielder)
- Tony Lopez (Midfielder)
- Jonathan Gomes (Goalkeeper)
- Christian Garner (Goalkeeper)
- Tola Showunmi (Forward)
- Joe Farrell (Defender)